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Visual Music

Abstract painting and light art

Perhaps art is just taking out what you don’t like and putting in what you do. There is no such thing as Abstraction. It is extraction, gravitation toward a certain direction.It is nearer to music, not the music of the ears, just the music of the eyes. – Arthur Dove, 1929

For many artists in the early twentieth century, music epitomized a new ideal of what visual art could become. No longer content simply to reproduce the visible world, painters instead sought to endow their canvases with the emotional intensity, structural integrity, and aesthetic purity that they attributed to music. The Russian painted Wassily Kandinsky voiced the belief of many vanguard artists when he claimed in his 1972 treatise. On the Spirtual in Art:” Musical sound has direct access to the soul. It finds there an echo, for man ‘hath music in himself’. For the American painter Arthur Dove, no less than for Kandinsky and many of their contemporaries, it followed that visual art, and painting in particular, should aspire to what British critic Walter Pater once termed “the condition of music”.

Roger Fry, writing in defense of Post-Impressionism in 1912, was among the first to coin the term “visual music” to describe works of art that “give up all resemblance to natural form, and create a purely abstract language of form – a visual music”.

This musical analogy – the premise that painting should emulate music – inspired some of the most adventurous visual arts of the twentieth century.Not only did music serve as a model and catalyst for abstract painting, but the musical ideal also sparked a parallel movement to create visual media incorporating the dimension of time. Among the most problematic and elusive of these “color music”, as it was termed by its early-twentieth century proponents, emerged as the first art of pure light. By devising an array of projection mechanisms, these artist-inventors sought to liberate color from its depictive function in conventional painting. In 1900, French engineer louis favre called for an “art of colors in motion”. The American educator and color theorist Maud Miles described in 1914 this new form of visual music composed from spectral light.

“The truest parallel that I can conceive between direct light rays of color and music would be to lay aside all attempts to represent objects either in a natural or conventional way, in using color. To simply use color as music, might prove a genuinely new art.”

Musical analogy in painting and the advent of light art in the guise of color music evolved simultaneously in the opening decades of the 20th century. Creative interactions between abstract painters and pioneers of light art contributed to the flowering of both genres. Transcending national boundaries and stylistic movements, abstraction in painting and in the novel medium of projected light shared a common generative ideal in the new musical paradigm.

In pursuing these various modes of musical analogy, visual artists tapped rich veins of intellectual ferment and scientific research at the dawn of the twentieth century. Among the ideas animating poets, physiologists, and psychologists was the phenomenon of synaethesia, the subjective interaction of multiple sensory perceptions. The notion that stimulation of one sensory faculty – sight, for example – might elicit a sensory response in another – hearing or touch – captured the imagination of artists, writers, and scientists. In 1893, the psychologists Alfred Binet observed:

A question of much interest in these days is that of color hearing. It has been repeatedly discussed in the daily press and literary and scientific reviews; it has been the subject of medical theses.. it has figured in poetry, in romance and even in the theaters.

Many intellectuals and artists considered synaesthesia to be a mystical vehicle to attain a higher reality or state of consciousness. At the same time, pioneers in the budding field of experimental psychology such as Binet began to study cases of synaesthesia in an effort to understand human perception. The resulting tension between spiritual idealism and scientific positivism spurred the development of visual music across Europe and in the United States

Mikalojus Konstantinas Ciurlionis. Sparks from the cycle of 3 paintings, 1906 Sparks.

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